The greed of the Big Six and concern for the environment mean that alternatives to corporate control are increasingly attractive
It came as no surprise that British Gas, the latest of the Big Six energy companies to hike its prices, found itself the recipient of a furious backlash this week. There’s plenty to be angry about: one in four households now regularly choose between heating and eating; 7,200 people died last year because they were unable to heat their homes; while energy minister Ed Davey’s solution to fuel poverty is to advise people to “wear a jumper”.
Fuel poverty is mobilising people to seek alternatives to the corporate control of energy (the Big Six control 99% of our domestic gas and electricity supply). Following the latest round of price hikes, the announcement of mega-profits and eye-watering chief executive pay, the companies’ claims that they have no obligation to keep the lights on is fertile ground for civil disobedience.
Activism on climate change is back too, and this time it is thinking global but acting local. Government plans to allow 64% of England to be fracked for shale gas and coal bed methane are sowing the seeds of community-based opposition. Whether it’s Balcombe telling Cuadrilla where to go, or East Kent and Salford rejecting I-Gas and Coastal Oil, these communities are united by a vital experience – a total lack of democracy when it comes to energy. The all-party narrative of re-powering the UK with local gas is profoundly disempowering for those who have to deal with it up close.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are backing these local campaigns, while No Dash for Gas, Disabled People Against Cuts, Occupy and UK Uncut were all part of the Reclaim the Power camp in Balcombe this summer, which shut down Cuadrilla for six days. We are witnessing a growing coalition of protest groups linking climate change to fuel poverty, democracy and social justice. Fuel Poverty Action and UK Uncut are planning actions against the Big Six, highlighting single mothers, disabled activists, pensioners and asylum seekers – those hardest hit by fuel poverty.
Renewable energy co-operatives have grown by 24% since 2008, showing that alternative power is technically as well as politically possible. Progressive unions are also joining in with One Million Climate Jobs and National Climate Service vision to get us out of austerity and into co-operatively owned sustainable industries.
Fuel poverty is a symptom of the free market. Neither the coalition policy of increasing competition nor Labour’s plan to bring prices under government control are sufficient. Seventy percent of British people support public ownership of energy. Direct democratic control, with an emphasis on locally generated renewable energy, is what’s needed.
In Germany, where renewables account for 25% of the energy mix and are 65% publicly owned, the main four companies feel some energy insecurity. In Berlin, the Energeitisch initiative, started up by eight people, has mobilised 50,000 Berliners in just over two years to force a referendum on reclaiming the city’s grid from the Norwegian corporation Vattenfall (one of the UK’s biggest windpower operators) and move it into 100% renewable, democratic control. The network, supported by unions, co-operatives and campaigners, operates a “no disconnections” policy – vital, given that 20,000 people in Berlin were cut off last year.
In Greece, where fuel prices have risen 12 times over the past four years, amounting to a total increase of 50%, the leftwing party Syriza is seriously debating a radical energy policy.
Local energy co-operatives could hold the key not just to local supplies but also to rebuilding communities after austerity, co-creating energy, climate and economic security for the majority. These discussions are happening all over the world. It is through the process of de-privatising energy that we can organise our societies along genuinely democratic lines and begin to reclaim our power, wherever we live.
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